Covid-19 highlights the urgent need for ASEAN forest protection

Photo: Enrico Strocchi/Flickr

With international attention trained on environmental protection and water supplies in the wake of World Forest Day (21 March) and World Water Day (22 March), it is clearer than ever that these two burning issues are intricately interlinked. In order to protect dwindling water supplies at the source, the long-term strategy of ASEAN governments must involve the future-proofing of Southeast Asia’s forests. During a global health crisis which continues to pummel the region’s health systems and economies, inaction on water security and deforestation is no longer an option.

A global problem

In a world where over 2.2 billion people do not have safely managed drinking water services, 3 billion go without handwashing facilities, and over 4.2 billion do not have safely managed sanitation services during a global pandemic, it is high time the water crisis garnered the attention of the world’s leaders. Andrew Steer, President of the World Resources Institute, said last week: “Water stress is the biggest crisis no one is talking about… Its consequences are in plain sight in the form of food insecurity, conflict and migration, and financial instability.”

The consequences of the current water crisis are no less evident in Asia where, despite the ratification of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Human Rights Declaration on “the right to safe drinking water and sanitation” in 2012, governments are still struggling to deliver potable water to over 100 million citizens. The chronic lack of access to clean water in Southeast Asia greatly increases the risk of contracting water-borne diseases, such as dysentery, typhoid fever, or cholera. Over the past year, the lack of running water has also led to a spike in Covid-19 cases. Scientists suggest the virus can be propagated through contaminated water droplets – making access to clean water essential for managing public health.

Cambodia’s conundrum

This is particularly true in Cambodia, which comes in fourth place for the worst drinking water in the world. Cambodia is one of 18 countries where more than 5% of the population relies on delivered water. This reality cannot but have contributed to the country’s alarming rise in Covid-19 case numbers over the past month. With hospitals close to collapse, other infectious diseases spread through contaminated water also risk being left untreated.

Across Southeast Asia, plentiful supplies of clean bottled water have tided over populations from Laos to Myanmar, particularly in the face of virus containment concerns and operational challenges to water infrastructure in the region. But this solution, while secure, needs to be bolstered by longer term policies – especially since the virus is not showing signs of abating and future pandemics are practically a guarantee.

Prior to World Water Day 2020, the UN revealed that “a continuing shortfall in water infrastructure investments from national governments and the private sector has left billions exposed to the COVID-19 pandemic.” One year on, the problem has only been aggravated by a growing economic gap between rich and poor.

Seeing the wood from the trees

ASEAN’s extensive forestland is a natural ally in counteracting the present water crisis. Forests are crucial for clean and plentiful water supply, greatly aiding the water cycle by preventing the erosion of banks that serve as filters and thereby maintain the potability of groundwater aquifers. Furthermore, trees’ photosynthesis releases water vapour alongside oxygen into the air, which regulates the precipitation and evaporation that keep the water cycle in motion.

Trees also absorb water through their roots and naturally filter out pollutants and sediment before releasing it into streams, lakes and rivers. As such, drinking water treatment has been proven by the World Resources Institute to be less expensive in areas with extensive tree coverage. Conversely, the felling of forests is direct correlated with the pollution of the water and the public health issues of communities which rely on it.

According to the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) Executive Director Dr. Theresa Mundita S. Lim, ASEAN is “considered one of the world’s most biologically rich and diverse ecosystems… forests are among its natural capital that sustains the region’s growth, especially now as we collectively aim to speed up recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.” Unfortunately, as long as the felling of the forests that cover 46% of ASEAN’s collective land surface remains commonplace, it will continue to pose a major problem for water security.

Although the denudation of Asia’s forestlands has slowed over recent decades, at least according to the 2020 ASEAN-European Union report ‘Investing in Sustainable Capital’, this trend must be reversed altogether if the region is to have a strong buffer against climate change – and water pollution. Just last week, the US Embassy in Cambodia weighed in to call for the preservation of the country’s Prey Lang wildlife sanctuary – one of the last lowland evergreen forests in Southeast Asia – just last week. This important forest has been subject to illegal mass clearings in order to satisfy Chinese demand for luxury wooden furniture.

A two-headed beast

Even as environmentalists loudly sound the alarm bell on the disappearance of the world’s forests, ongoing legal and illegal deforestation is precipitating global warming. It is not, of course, just a question of clean water – rather, forest ecosystems are crucial to a country’s sustainable prosperity, providing support for humans and catering to basic needs from food to medicine and from shelter to energy. By jointly tackling the intertwined water and deforestation crises, there is great leverage for governments to kill two birds with one stone by investing in the longevity of forests.

Together, World Water Day and World Forest Day thus highlight the rising global threat to these pivotal natural resources. The importance of stamping out deforestation and investing in planting cannot be overemphasised if clean water supplies are to be ensured.